As a political system, democracy cannot function without the consent of the people it serves, and the surest way of confirming that consent is to encapsulate that consent within a political choice: Voting. It’s a remarkably simple process which allows the determination of binary and non-binary choices within a nation state. However, in recent years the percentage of people choosing to participate in the voting process has fluctuated wildly, decreasing in some years while increasing in others. The problem is that in both cases, turnout is still not what it needs to be to make the democratic process the most efficient and reflective model of society.
What if we could make the system so appealing that voters would flock to polling booths in their droves? What if we could engineer a system which delivered 100% voter turnout, in election after election and referendum after referendum?
Consider if you will the implications of having a 100% voter turnout. Every citizen is engaged within the process, none is disadvantaged. Although a citizen can still retain the right to complain about instances where public services are not delivered, they are now engaged enough to vote in a process which will enable them to change that delivery. Cries of “my views are not represented” become a thing of the past. Greater engagement in the voting process would work, in concert with other reforms presented in other articles to close the disenfranchisement gap present in democracy today.
Fundamentally, why do people not want to vote? As an advocate of voting and engaging in the political process, I struggled to understand why someone would not want to vote. It’s like participating in Game of Thrones (or perhaps not that extreme) but you see my point. Then I thought about it a little more, trying to put myself in their shoes, considered the current political setup and it seemed a realistic viewpoint.
Given the conduct of politicians, given the lack of practical differences between political parties and given their overt lack of interest in obtaining your vote, why would anyone vote in such a process? To address this issue, we need to take it apart, piece by piece. First issue, which is probably the simplest to deal with is voting on weekdays. Individuals who do a full 9-5 or in some cases an even longer day have no time to vote. Who’d want to after a hard day at the intellectual coalface? It’s no coincidence that often the biggest turnout in voting is from the elderly and retired individuals. So, when’s best for this to take place? The weekend would be the logical choice, but it’s not as simple as that. The Electoral Commission would be required to appoint staff to cover a process occurring outside of office hours, resulting in extra expenditure to the public purse.
So, what’s the solution? Allocating more money to the process, something which would work in principle but there will always be that dissenting voice which says no. But would a guarantee of more voters turning out sway the decision? An argument can be made that it would. Political decisions could be seen as definitive with no room for the inevitable “it’s not truly reflective of public will” debate.
Introducing increased technology into the voting process may seem like a good way of increasing voting, after all technology exists to make our lives more convenient and processes more accessible. However, the roll-out of an electronic voting system, either through a phone app or online site, would be an immensely expensive and time-consuming thing to do, with the cost spiralling potentially into billions. Also, technology is not infallible, apps can crash, internet sites can be hacked or cloned by individuals with nefarious aims, or even rival states intent on sabotaging political structures. For all its faults, the current voting process is the path of least resistance.
In the absence of making voting a weekend experience, the most obvious methods of encouraging increased participation in the voting process are to incentivise voting or alternatively disincentivise non-voting. So, what do I mean by incentivising voting? Financial incentives would be the most likely approach, with voters being paid if they turn up at the ballot boxes. However, this sort of scenario would open the voting process up to potential malfeasance and corruption, with registrars taking bribes or potential robbery of funds used to pay voters. Another potential method of incentivised voting could be a reduction in council tax if individual participate. If it gets voters through the door, then it will prove its worth, especially in reducing the current burden on the Electoral Commission.
On the other side of the coin, disincentivising non-participation in the voting process could also be just as easy. Simply remove access to benefits or increase the financial burden on individuals. Individuals must be made to understand that non participation in voting is not something to aspire to.
Incentivising the voting process
We have to turn the perception of voting away from the current negative standpoint to a more positive standpoint. To coin a marketing phrase, we have to get “bums on seats” and keep them there. One often muted but never followed up on method is to widen the age restriction for voting to include individuals under the age of 18, with the incentive being to be considered an adult. The age of 18 is considered to be a watershed, in which individuals are given the right to drive, they finish their education and so on.
Having the opportunity to vote, while a potent symbol of adulthood does not necessary guarantee that the individual will vote, after all there are lots of over 18s who don’t vote even with the opportunity. So, the emphasis has to be on drawing those young people into the process, through targeted campaigns and inclusive politicising by all the main parties. However, in allowing individuals to vote who are under the age of 18, you effectively triple the burden on the Electoral Commission because of the need to add these people to the voting rolls. So, is the burden worth it?
Another method of increasing voter turnout could potentially be giving voters the opportunity to select their own party candidates. Under the current system, individuals can be placed on the ballot merely by making a £500 deposit and submitting a few forms. While this may seem simple, the problem comes when campaigning begins because no matter the person’s political standpoint, money talks and the most likely candidate to win is the one who can command the most campaign financing.
Levelling the playing field
But what if you take that advantage away and level the playing field? Take the campaign out of the hands of the prospective MPs and have an external entity run it. Have every candidate submit their intended policies to that entity, for publication in a unified document sent out to every voter, a sort of candidate go compare if you will. Shift the emphasis away from the bluster and back to the fundamental question of choice: What do you do differently to him/her?
Each candidate will, broadly speaking, campaign on the same sorts of issues. These can be laid side by side on a page as simply as possible. This would have the effect of providing greater information to the voter. Simplifying the choice involved and making it easier to do so. Existing MP’s could be forced to declare what they have done in their current tenure and what they plan to do alongside these other candidates.
Force the aspiring MP to really put some thought into their political stance beyond just party lines. Make it relevant to the community they serve, so the public service element of politics swings back into consciousness. We need to make being a politician an occupation worth aspiring to, like being a footballer or a celebrity.
So how do you increase the appeal of becoming a politician? How do you increase the appeal of any job? It’s a chicken and egg scenario. We have to improve the process before we can create the conditions for increased appeal. Positive depictions of politicians, away from the constant bickering and child like behaviour do not help. We need our politicians to sign up to a better standard of behaviour and as anyone watching the last few weeks in parliament will tell you we need it now.
If voters respect politicians, they vote for politicians, and respect is only gained via trust. Trust comes from openness and openness in the political process is something we can engender with these changes. The natural by-product of this respect is the increased appeal of becoming a politician so that it is an occupation which not only is something to be wanted, but something that actually works within the political structure to a positive end. Regardless of the need to change democracy, the rehabilitation of the public image of politicians is something which should be undertaken as soon as possible.
Once this is achieved, voting will become a necessity for all.